Shepard McKenney | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Shepard McKenney

Background:  

Seakeeper, with headquarters in California, Md., and manufacturing facilities in Mohnton, Penn., develops motion control devices for boats from 30 feet to 100 feet or more. The company’s products aim to negate boat roll and by extension make boating a more pleasurable experience. Its first products hit the market in 2008. 

The Mistake: 

I started out my professional life as a lawyer. I got out of school in 1964 and practiced law until the beginning of 1972. The reason I got out is because I realized I was just a business functionary—I wasn’t exactly keeping anyone out of the electric chair with what I was doing. When I looked at what some of our more entrepreneurial clients were doing, it just looked more profitable and more interesting than what I was doing.  

So I got together with partners and we went on to develop a chain of suite hotels. That was my first exposure to running a business, but I didn’t want anyone to know that was the case. I was uncertain and insecure about whether I could measure up and particularly worried about whether people would respect my abilities as a manager when I had no real experience in that industry. That was the beginning of my habit of feeling like I had to appear at all times as if I was the smartest person in the room.  

In 1982, I bought a boat-building company in Maine and would own that for 15 years. There I had the same issue, even though I had been around boats my entire life. I felt inadequate. I’d walk into a meeting feeling like if I didn’t know the answer to everything, people wouldn’t have confidence in me.  

That whole business of being the smartest guy in the room and having all the best ideas—it really was a huge psychological hurdle. It was really inhibiting in terms of opening up to other people and letting them own their areas of responsibility.   

It’s all about asking the right questions, not being arrogant and celebrating other people’s good ideas.

The Lesson:  

When the idea of launching Seakeeper came along, I was determined to go into this business with a very different psychological posture. I was going to own my role with my third venture.  

When I got my business cards printed up, instead of putting “CEO” after my name, I put “CADQ” with an asterisk next to it. Then when you flipped over the card to the back, it explained what CADQ meant, “Chief Asker of Dumb Questions"—that was a reflection of the fact that I wanted to own in front my employees and everyone else that I was going to rely on the ideas and talents of others.  

While I haven’t done a perfect job with this, I feel this company has developed in a way that goes beyond my wildest dreams in terms of allowing people to take ownership of their areas of expertise and responsibility. I believe it’s all about asking the right questions, not being arrogant and celebrating other people’s good ideas.  

I honestly would have liked to have been in this place psychologically when I started that hotel business 35 years ago if for no other reason than we would have had a much better team—and the company would have been better for it.  

Follow Seakeeper on Twitter at @Seakeeper

Photo courtesy of Shephard McKenney.